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Leaders Worry About Risk Of Wildfires In Tahoe Basin

Paul Boger
Heavy smoke from wildfires hangs over Lake Tahoe.

2017 was the hottest year on record for most of Northern Nevada. And while the warmer weather has created complications across the region, nowhere may be as impacted as Lake Tahoe. The delicate ecosystem of the continent’s largest alpine lake has been under assault for decades from invasive species, algae growth and decreasing clarity. But area leaders are now concerned that wildfires may pose an even greater threat to the lake.

For much of Northern Nevada and the Eastern Sierra, the air is thick with the smoke of massive wildfires to the west, and it’s that smoke that presented an ominous backdrop to this year’s Lake Tahoe Summit. 

Now, in its 22nd year, the event allows federal, state and local leaders in California and Nevada to discuss ways to protect the lake and its ecosystem. This year, wildfires were to be topic du jour, and rightfully so.

Over the past 20 months, wildfires have burned more than 3 million acres in California and Nevada alone, and while there hasn’t been a major wildfire in the Tahoe Basin in more than a decade, many believe it’s only a matter of time.

"The danger is real," said Graham Kent, director of Alert Tahoe – a camera monitoring system used to detect fires. "There's certain days that are much more dangerous than others, but in either case, we want to make sure that we basically have the best opportunity. I like it to Genghis Khan and his horde are pushing at the door. You can never shut it, but you don't want it to be wide open either."

According to Kent, a massive wildfire in the basin could result in devastating ecological damage not only for the forest but the lake as well, one that could take a generation or more to fix.

Credit Paul Boger
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali.) address summit attendees about the threat of wildfires in the Tahoe Basin.

  That’s why politicians like Nevada’s Republican Senator Dean Heller – the official host of this year’s summit – have touted lawmaker’s efforts to protect the lake. That includes the bipartisan passage of the $12 million Lake Tahoe Restoration Act – which directs money toward programs like Alert Tahoe to purchase new cameras and upgrade existing ones.

"By investing in these technologies, and catching fires before they expand, we will save time and money and, most importantly, we will be saving lives," Heller said.

Funding for improvement and restoration has, historically, been a major component of preservation efforts. In all, more than $2.2 billion has been spent in the basin, with roughly $705 million coming from the federal government, another $840 million from California, $159 million from Nevada, and the rest of the money is from local governments and the private sector.

But, Nevada’s Democratic U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto says with the growing impact of climate change, increasing funds for projects may not be enough.

"I do believe the science," Cortez Masto said. "This is one of the biggest threats, not only to Lake Tahoe, which experience its highest-ever record water temperature last year, but to every community on earth. These extreme weather patterns are already upsetting the delicate balance of the Lake Tahoe ecosystem, and the climate is on track to get more and more extreme in the years to come. The solution is to break our addiction to the fuels of the past and move towards our clean energy future."

According to recent data collected by the National Weather Service, it looks like last month was the hottest on record. Combine that with the recent drought that left hundreds of thousands of trees across the Sierra dead, much of the Tahoe Basin is looking like a tinderbox.

Republican Congressman Tom McClintock -- who represents California's 4th District which includes the Lake -- says the only way to prevent a devastating fire is to remove excess timber from the basin before it's too late.

"The thin line that has held so far is the vigilance of the basin's fire agencies," said McClintock "but the line can't hold forever against a continuing build-up of these fuels in these mountains. I'm often reminded at these summits that excess timber comes out of the forest in one of two ways. It's either carried out or it burns out, but it will come out."

Whether it's increasing funds for fire fighting and prevention, combating climate change, or simply mitigating fire risks by removing excess timber, lawmakers in both states say they will continue to work towards protecting one of the area's most vital resources.

Paul Boger is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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